One of the principal themes of Eric Metaxas’ latest book—If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty—is that America needs virtuous leaders if our freedom is to endure. Having read and reviewed Metaxas’ book so recently, I found it impossible not to ruminate on his argument while listening to Ted Cruz’s stunning “non-endorsement” of Donald Trump at last night’s session of the Republican National Convention. Cruz’s speech immediately went under the media microscope, in part because it was almost the first surprising thing to happen at a national party convention in the past half century, but also because almost every talking head who weighed in on the question last night agreed that what Cruz had done was politically “risky.” Should Trump go on to win the presidency [involuntary shudder] or come close enough to victory that Cruz’s stance could be seen as responsible for his defeat, the consensus was that we’ll remember the Texas senator’s speech as the beginning of the end of his political career.
That caused my historian’s alarm to go off, because what we call “politically risky” might very well be what the Founding Fathers would have called “virtuous.” Let’s remember what the Founders meant by the term. When they argued that virtue was indispensable to the success of free institutions, they defined the concept differently than we might today. Virtue, as they understood it, had almost nothing to do with sexual morality—something we’re likely to think of if we hear the word now—and everything to do with one’s willingness to sacrifice personal interest for the benefit of the common good.
When the framers of the Constitution gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to create “a more perfect union,” their belief in the importance of virtue contributed to two other working hypotheses. First, political factions were more likely to be fueled by self-interest than self-denial. This is why George Washington denounced them in his Farewell Address, advising the American people to “avoid the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and reminding them that partisan spirit too often “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms” [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.” (What would he say about American politics in 2016?)
Second, the Founders understood that, in a free society in which the people could easily get caught up in self-destructive partisan passions, it was sometimes the duty of the virtuous statesman to defy the majority, even at the cost of popular condemnation. And so when James Madison and Alexander Hamilton penned the Federalist essays after the Philadelphia Convention adjourned, they repeatedly noted that one of the strengths of the new Constitution would be the features that would keep the government accountable to the people while still shielding officeholders from undue popular pressure. The indirect election of the Senate, for example, would enable that body to “refine and enlarge” public sentiments to arrive at official policies superior to what the people clamored for. The convoluted election of the president would free the executive to stand against popular passions “when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations,” i.e., when what the people want would be bad for them.
In If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas seems to think that our cultural commitment to virtue held strong until about the time that the Beatles came to America, but the belief in virtue as the Founders understood it was almost extinct within a half century of Independence. The best evidence for this comes from the crucial presidential election of 1824.
The 1824 election had played out pretty much the way that the framers of the Constitution had expected most elections to unfold. There had been a large number of serious candidates on the ballot in the general election: Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, of Georgia; Kentuckian Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, of Massachuetts; and Major General Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee. Predictably given such a large field of candidates, no individual had received a majority in the Electoral College, which meant that the outcome had to be determined by a run-off election among the top three finishers in the House of Representatives. (Clay, who finished fourth, was the odd man out.) Finally, in the run-off in the House the congressmen had cast their ballots without necessarily feeling constrained by the popular vote in their home states. Although many did so, overall they favored the second-place finisher, Adams, over the first-place finisher, Jackson. There was nothing unconstitutional about their doing so, and nothing necessarily insidious in their decision that Adams was the more qualified. (In terms of political experience, he unquestionably was.)
Key to the outcome of the run-off in the House was Henry Clay’s decision to endorse John Quincy Adams, despite the fact that his Kentucky constituents overwhelming favored Jackson once Clay himself had been eliminated from contention. Clay justified his decision by appealing to the obligations of virtue as the Founders would have understood it. In a letter intended for public circulation, Clay observed,
My position, in regard to the Presidential election, is highly critical, & such as to leave me no path on which I can move without censure; I have pursued, in regard to it, the rule which I always observe in the discharge of my public duty. I have interrogated my conscience as to what I ought to do, & that faithful guide tells me that I ought to vote for Mr. Adams. . . . I am, & shall continue to be, assailed by all the abuse, which partisan zeal, malignity, & rivalry can invent. I shall risk, without emotion, these effusions of malice, & remain unshaken in my purpose. What is a public man worth, if he will not expose himself, on fit occasions, for the good of his country?
“I have interrogated my conscience,” Clay explained, and it tells me how to proceed. I know that my decision will be unpopular, he went on in so many words, but that must not deter me. The path of virtue practically ensures that the virtuous statesman will be viciously assailed, but sometimes that’s what the good of the country requires of him. Jackson supporters replied—and here is what is supremely significant—that it is never virtuous to oppose the will of the people (a variation on the blasphemy that the voice of the people is the voice of God). As the editor of the pro-Jackson Washington Gazette cried out in disbelief:
If the People thought Gen. Jackson worthy, is it for Henry Clay to pronounce him unworthy? Is it for him to say to his fellow citizens, ‘You shall not have the man you wish, but the man I will’? No.—Henry Clay himself has inflicted the deepest wound on the fundamental principle of our government. He has insulted and struck down the majesty of the People.
If you’re familiar with the details of this watershed election, you know that the story doesn’t end here. When John Quincy Adams subsequently named Clay his Secretary of State, Jackson supporters immediately screamed that a “Corrupt Bargain” had been struck and Clay had sold his support in the run-off in exchange for a cabinet post. Historians have never uncovered any evidence to prove that this actually happened, but the charge was politically useful, and the Jacksonians wielded it with a vengeance. Four years later, the people had their way, and the nation’s first populist president—whose primary policy accomplishment would be the passage of the Indian Removal Act—was elevated to the presidency.
Was Henry Clay motivated by love of country or by political ambition? I don’t know. What I do know is that he still spoke in the language of the Founders, who assumed that the exercise of virtue might require defiance of the public and usually exacted a personal cost. That view was already dying out by the 1820s.
Was Ted Cruz motivated by love of country or political ambition in last night’s non-endorsement of Donald Trump? I don’t know. It’s quite possible, as several op-ed writers were quick to insinuate, that he made a calculated decision about how best to advance his own political future. I’m not a big Ted Cruz fan, but I’ll say this much: In refusing to fall in line behind his party and in delivering an address sure to elicit scorn and derision across the lecture hall, Cruz’s stance looks on the surface more virtuous than anything else I’ve noticed from the convention so far.